Forgotton Troubles

The historic day on 8 May when the Northern Ireland Assembly was reformed was also the 20th anniversary of the IRA's heaviest defeat since the civil war, at Loughgall. By Colm Heatley


When Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley shared a platform at Stormont, it was billed as a new dawn for the peace process, however 8 May 2007 also marked the 20th anniversary of the IRA's heaviest defeat since the civil war.

On that day in 1987, eight members of the IRA's East Tyrone Brigade were wiped out by an undercover SAS team as they attempted to destroy an RUC barracks in Loughgall, Co Armagh.

The two events, separated by two decades, stand in stark contrast to each other, and demonstrate how political discourse in the North has changed irrevocably in the intervening years.

In 1987, the IRA's ‘Long War' strategy was virtually unquestioned within republican ranks, and the East Tyrone Brigade was at the forefront of the IRA's armed struggle. With a reputation for militancy, and under the guidance of seasoned activists such as Jim Lynagh, Padraig McKearney and Patrick Kelly, the IRA in east Tyrone was one of the most active in the North.

In the mid-1980s, the battle lines were drawn. For republicans, a United Ireland would be achieved through force of arms. For the British, there would be no negotiations with the IRA. The SAS would do the talking for Thatcher.

The front line for that battle was east Tyrone, and Loughgall was the biggest set-piece in what would become a testing ground for both British and IRA strategy at the time.

Between 1987 and 1994, the IRA lost almost 30 members in east Tyrone, the highest casualty rate of any IRA area.

When the SAS ambushed the IRA unit at Loughgall, it followed a number of successful operations by the same IRA members on police stations in the Mid-Ulster in which isolated RUC stations were attacked and destroyed and the RUC men inside were killed.

The thinking behind the attacks was that the IRA would create ‘liberated zones' in the North where the RUC would be unable to operate. In tandem with the attacks, the IRA also targeted building firms who re-constructed damaged RUC stations.

At Loughgall however, the IRA unit would walk into a trap designed to kill all of them.

When their bodies were examined, it was discovered that all had head wounds, and there was strong evidence that most, if not all, had been shot in the head as they lay on the ground.

For at least 24 hours beforehand, and probably a number of weeks, the SAS had known of the plan and dug themselves into positions around the Loughgall RUC station.

How the British came to know of the attack beforehand has never been fully established. However, it is known that an Ardboe woman, Colette O'Neill, a British agent, had allowed her house to be used by senior members of the IRA team in the days before the attack. A phone call was made from her home by the IRA on the morning of the attack.

After the ambush, she was abducted by the IRA but was rescued by the British army. But because of the scale of an IRA operation such as Loughgall, where between 50 and 100 IRA members and supporters can be used for back-up, it has been virtually impossible to pin down a specific factor which gave the British advance warning.

The day before the attack, 24 SAS members were dug into positions around the barracks and when the IRA eventually appeared in a blue HiAce van and a JCB digger, the trap was about to be sprung. As the IRA unit drove the bomb-laden digger through the perimeter fence of the RUC station, Declan Arthurs, 21, lit the fuse.

Moments beforehand, two other IRA men began firing at the RUC station. Within seconds, the 24 SAS men returned fire. Six members of the eight-man IRA unit were killed in the blue van. Declan Arthurs was killed a hundred yards or so from the station and Gerard O'Callaghan, 29, was killed on the pavement outside the barracks.

Brian Arthurs, his brother, was in America when he heard of the attack. Declan had 36 bulletwounds to his body.

“When I knew that Declan was involved, I obviously hoped he had gotten away. He nearly did – he was a fast runner and made it to the edge of where the ambush was, but unfortunately he didn't escape.

“I was devastated by the news. When I flew back home, the cops at the airport started questioning me, and within a few weeks I had been arrested by the RUC in Tyrone. They showed me photographs of Declan after the attack, it was par for the course for them.”

Brian Arthurs later served a sentence in the H-Blocks on explosives charges and was the last IRA prisoner released under the Good Friday Agreement.
Given the current political arrangements, he feels that the IRA's campaign helped deliver changes for nationalists in the North. “The British government denied republicans any political voice and their answer to our demands was given by the British army. Obviously we responded, we had no choice.

“When the volunteers were killed at Loughgall it didn't put people off joining the IRA. Far from it. There was a huge influx of new people who wanted to join the movement after Loughgall. The message from the republican community was that British oppression wouldn't be tolerated.

“Thankfully, we are in a better position today, where politics can work.”

Despite the loss of the IRA unit at Loughgall, IRA activity in east Tyrone actually increased in the following two years, with 11 people killed by the group in the two years after the ambush, compared to seven for the two years previous.

In this republican heartland, there is still huge sympathy for the eight IRA men. At a commemoration march held on 6 May, more than 6,000 people turned out.

However while the majority of republicans are supportive of the Adams-McGuinness leadership, there are those who have become disillusioned with what has unfolded since 1994.

Padraig McKearney was among the eight killed at Loughgall. A Maze escapee, he had reported back to the IRA and went on to become one of the most senior IRA people in Tyrone and Mid-Ulster. Avowedly militant, he was a soulmate of Jim Lynagh, who had developed the strategy of creating ‘liberated zones' by attacking isolated rural RUC stations.

During the Troubles, the McKearney family paid heavily. Three sons were killed, one in a premature explosion, another by UVF gunmen, and Padraig at Loughgall.

Tommy McKearney, Padraig's brother, who also served a 17-year sentence, says that perhaps Loughgall could have been avoided “if Paisley had shown the same leadership in the early days of the Troubles”.

“Since the start of the Troubles, Paisley and his like blocked every political initiative and of course that ensured the conflict would continue for as long as it did.

“The peace process has delivered benefits for nationalists in the North. I don't particularly have a problem with them sharing power with Paisley.”
McKearney, a Marxist, says that Sinn Féin's dilution of policies such as corporation tax levels are more of a concern to him.

McKearney also believes that by killing the Loughgall unit, the SAS had removed some of the most militant elements of the IRA.

“I think it is fair to assume that the British would have had an idea of what was going on internally within the republican movement at that time.
“By killing the IRA unit at Loughgall, and particularly people like my brother and Jim Lynagh, they had taken away people who would have potentially been critical of subsequent strategic developments within the movement.”

The genesis of this line of thought lies in claims that Gerry Adams was at that time involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations to pave the way for a political settlement.

The implication is that the men at Loughgall were specifically targeted to aid Adams's political project.

However such contacts, and lines of communication, have always existed.

Certainly, if the intention of the republican leadership was to wind down IRA activity, particularly in east Tyrone, events on the ground do not support the theory.

In the years after Loughgall, the IRA in east Tyrone became more active, and in the early-1990s, east Tyrone was the first area to use ‘barrack buster' mortars. Attacks on helicopters were also mounted in the area for the first time.

Loughgall can, instead, be seen as the war being played out in public, with both the British government and republican leadership determined to negotiate from a position of strength. Logically, successful IRA operations were more likely to be a benefit rather than a hindrance to Adams. Conversely, the British government wanted to demonstrate the futility of armed struggle.

The success of the IRA in east Tyrone had also led to calls, particularly by unionists, for a security ‘crack-down' on the IRA in the area. Influential unionist politicians such as Ken Maginness, a former senior-ranking UDR man, was especially vocal in his calls for a ‘get tough' policy. Given Thatcher's personality, and history of antagonism with the IRA, such calls were being heard by sympathetic ears in Whitehall and Downing Street.
In the aftermath of the ambush, the media in Ireland, north and south, almost universally welcomed the shootings, presenting them as an example of triumph rather than the failure of politics in the North.

Mariead Kelly's brother, Patrick Kelly, was the leader of the IRA unit killed at Loughgall. Born in the predominantly Protestant town of Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, the family moved to Dungannon in the early days of the Troubles.

One of her first memories of moving to the town is of neighbours running to the family home to tell her parents that Patrick was being beaten up by the British Army.

“They were beating him black and blue, he was only a teenager at the time, but like a lot of young Catholics, that was his experience of the British army.”

In 2001, a European Court ruling declared that the Loughgall IRA men had their human rights violated and awarded the families £10,000 in compensation.

Kelly was paramount in that campaign, arguing that the eight could have been arrested instead. Today she feels let down “by all of the political parties”, and isn't sure why her brother died.

She was also angered by the decision to re-start the assembly on the anniversary of her brother's death.

Despite the start of what appears to be a new phase in the North, the scars of the Troubles remain open for many.